Two intriguing examples in recent days have reinforced some of the points about differences in Western and Asian communication/negotiation styles that have been discussed in diverse publications, and in this blog. The significant distinction here relates to the willingness to speak up, to speak out, to express one’s views in public or other fora. The broad difference that observers comment on relates to the high- and low-context variations, with members of the latter (characterised by flatter hierarchies, greater individualism, higher social mobility, diminished automatic respect for authority etc) more willing to speak up; and, in speaking up, more likely to rely on the literal content of what is said rather than relying on inferences and shared understanding of what is not said. Members of the former – high-context – societies are also likely to offer greater deference to authority and less likely to speak up on matters expressing opinion – and certainly expressing contentious opinion.
The examples which, at least anecdotally, reinforce this:
First, in one of my Negotiation classes I invited a kind of reflective and review discussion on what the members of class had noted, 5 weeks into the weekly class, worked or did not work as strategies and interventions in negotiation. The first suggestion, offered by an Israeli exchange student, was that direct questioning, going straight to the issues, was an effective technique. Knowing that this observation also reflected the self-confessed directness of Israelis, I asked the rest of the class – almost all Singaporeans – if that was also their experience.
I got two reactions: one was a reluctance to openly disagree and to speak up (itself, an interesting mode of answering and reinforcing the point); the other reaction came about when I phrased the option for Singaporeans that in fact the direct opposite was more likely to be a preferred and effective technique – at which point, I got a range of largely non-verbal affirmations that this was so.
So, to restate the blindingly obvious, what works at home ain’t necessarily going to work elsewhere. On this, see also Jeswald Salacuse’s “Ten ways that culture affects negotiation style: some survey results,” in Negotiation Journal Volume 14, Number 3 / July, 1998. And Lothar Katz “Negotiating International Business – Israel” http://www.globalnegotiationresources.com/cou/Israel.pdf
Further, in watching groups of students engaged in class negotiation simulations, the ones that are less likely to work easily towards an integrative solution are the ones in which this simple lesson is not heeded – and in which direct meets elliptical in a dance to different tunes.
The second example cropped up while I was observing a colleague’s class (as we do on occasion at SMU) – a class in corporate communications. Leaving aside the substance of what was being discussed, what was interesting was that my colleague’s open, engaging and inviting style of asking questions and seeking to elicit interpretive, analytical and – to a degree – critical responses evoked participation almost exclusively from the exchange student members of the class – largely from Western Europe. While class participation is the norm here – indeed a norm that carries grade value – it was at least interesting to see that those volunteering opinions were from low context cultures, willing to engage in repartee and exchange with the instructor; willing also to engage in a critical interpretation of texts that did carry some relatively low-key socio-political implications.
This latter example was reinforced by a blog/journal comment by one of my Negotiation students who pointed to a Singaporean (and generalised “Asian”) preference in negotiations to observe, speak only when invited, and not to engage in speculative or exploratory discussions.
We’ve still a way to go on learning more about the unspoken negotiations . . .